Ben Gatt's Gonzo Capri

2023-06-23 00:00:00

Ben Gatt's Gonzo Capri
While Capris were marketed as a poor man's performance car, they hardly fit into the mold of a muscle car. However, they have nonetheless been a popular choice for the outer skin of drag racing sedans.

Their reasonably sleek lines, lighter weight, and smaller size could easily be propelled by a grunty V8, and often with great success.

Among the most renowned examples of this latter role model was that of Sydney racer Ben Gatt, who, along with his brother Joe, had been among the pioneers of the sport in Sydney. In 1963, Joe constructed a 1934 Ford coupe street hot rod, while Ben built a Model A "bucket" hot rod, both of which were used for racing.

The pair sold these to invest in full-time race cars: Joe acquired a sidevalve V8-powered dragster, and Ben acquired a 365 Ford-powered FX Holden. After a while, Joe decided to sell the dragster and focus on serving as Ben's crew chief for his race cars. The next car in Ben's lineup was a 1948 Ford Anglia, equipped with the same driveline that had powered the FX Holden.

Then came a Funny Car with a Capri body, initially powered by a fuel-injected 427 Ford and later equipped with a blown 392 Chrysler Hemi engine running on nitro. This setup remained in use until September 1975 when the car caught fire during a race in Adelaide, resulting in its complete destruction. Fortunately, Ben managed to escape with minimal injuries, only leaving behind a charred firesuit and an empty bank account.

Picture: Joe (left) and Ben Gatt back when racing was simple and cheap enough to fund from a small business.

Joe then pursued his fishing interests while Ben and he concentrated on establishing their Super Flow Heads business. Meanwhile, Ben dabbled in racing with his street-driven XY Falcon ute. This reignited his passion for the quarter mile, and in June 1981, he introduced his new Capri, powered by a 302 Ford engine.

The Capri was specifically designed to compete in Gas classes, allowing for modifications such as fiberglass doors, boot lid, front body clip, certain body shape modifications (spoilers, roof chop, etc.), up to a 15 percent engine set back, and the freedom to choose any engine and transmission combination within a preferred chassis. In other words, these cars retained a largely stock appearance while delivering exceptional performance.

Picture: Ben Gatt’s “Gonzo” 302 Capri lifts a front wheel in a launch at the Castlereagh strip in 1982.

The car was dubbed "Gonzo" as a nod to the supposed resemblance between Ben's bent nose and a certain TV kids character.

The Capri initially competed in the C/Gas class before progressing to B/Gas. The distinction between the two classes was determined by a ratio of cubic inches to weight. In the B/Gas category, the car either had a larger engine or carried less weight compared to its C/Gas configuration. Throughout its racing career, the Capri consistently performed just under the national record and frequently set new records.

The car was raced at least once, and sometimes twice, per month for over five years. In 1983, it secured the team the Australian Super Stock Championship, which was awarded based on points accumulated throughout the season.

Picture: Ben Gatt sets out on a handicapped chase of Rod Andrews’ Holden ute at the 1984 Holden V Ford contest at Sydney’s Castlereagh track in March 1984

In November 1986, with Joe back on board as crew chief, they transitioned to a blown 360 Ford engine to venture into BB/Gas (the double letter classification denoting forced induction). After a period of 18 months to familiarise themselves with the engine and transmission, the Capri was sold off, and the driveline was transplanted into a two-door XA, representing a significant leap in their racing progression.

But that, too, is another story for another day.

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